Thursday, July 14, 2011

Looking back to plan ahead

Do you have any idea what you would have done differently this year if you could change something?

That question comes from Mr. Brosbe, a fellow NYC public school third grade teacher, and it's a question I'm glad he asked, because it gives me a chance to do some constructive reflection instead of wallowing in self-pity.  One of the things that's disheartening, looking back on my year, is that I should have known better about so many of these things from the start.  But beginning the school year at a new school in a CTT classroom for the first time threw me off my game, so to speak, and everything suffered as a result.  So these aren't just "things I should have done differently," but rather "goals for next year."

1. Establish consistency and routine right from the start.
It's so hard to know what works, and I have a tendency to jump the gun (i.e., if the kids aren't getting something right away, I switch tactics and try something else instead of having a little patience and keepin' on with the keeping on).  I wasn't used to teaching in a school where students trickle into the classroom on their own (as opposed to me picking them all up at once), or where a morning meeting is actually part of the daily routine, or where I set my own schedule altogether, for that matter.  So much of your classroom community and culture comes from establishing those comfortable routines, and I think the lack of them in my classroom this year is part of why I never felt fully "bonded" with my students. 

2. Keep it simple.
My co-teacher and I knew going into the year that we had a class that would need clear expectations set for them, and we set up this complex baseball-themed behavior system that involved "rounding the bases with good behavior!" and moving into the "strike zone" for acting out.  It just got too complicated to manage and we dropped it early in the school year in favor of a ticket reward system, which also involved finding time for everyone to trade in their tickets for fabulous prizes.  (The vast majority of our students preferred to hoard their tickets rather than trade them, with the end result that on the last day of school, I held a class-wide "ticket auction" in which everyone competed to see who would be willing to hand over the most tickets for the most worthless pieces of junk in the prize bin.  This is how I sounded as the auctioneer: "I have one dinosaur bookmark!  We'll start the bidding at 20 tickets.  Okay, I see 30!  Anyone going higher than 30 tickets?")

Now, of course every year you hope that your students will be so intrinsically motivated by learning that these sorts of systems aren't necessary, and I have heard from my future students' current teacher that "they want to please you" (the five sweetest words a teacher can hear), but next year I don't want to be messing around with when and how and where to distribute prizes...I just want a simple behavior system that manages itself!

3. Set reasonable, meaningful consequences.
My naughty friends this year were remarkably immune to negative consequences.  I had several students who were not allowed to attend recess or eat with their friends in the lunchroom for weeks at a time (on the principal's orders, not mine), and they were (or at least they pretended to be) totally untroubled by this.  One of them in particular enjoyed showing off just how untroubled she was by loudly declaring her contempt for whatever fun activity she was missing.  So there were times when I thought, "Why bother take away recess, it doesn't bother them anyway," but then there were other times when I found myself coming to the end of my rope and making unreasonable threats like, "If I see that one more time, you're going straight to the principal's office," as if I were in some zany 1950s teen movie where I played the stern teacher. 

So this goes with my above philosophy of keeping it simple: Consequences should be clear from the start, not invented on the spot by me in a fit of anger -- and the punishment should fit the crime, so to speak.

You'll notice I haven't said anything at all yet about actual instruction.  That's because I felt like this year was so clouded by management issues that my biggest difficulty was actually getting to instructional time.  But I will say for next year...

4. Use my student data to plan targeted small groups.
At my former school, we were expected to teach a million and one small strategy groups, but it was all about quantity over quality.  At my new school, the trend ran more towards individual conferences.  On the one hand, conferencing is a little easier because you just plop down next to a student, find out what he's working on, and go from there; on the other hand, I had a lot to learn about how to teach something in a one-on-one conferences (as opposed to just shooting the breeze).  I did so many individual conferences that I really moved away from small groups, and I missed out on a lot of chances to work with my students together in a group.  Next year, I'd really like to make sure I'm trying to group my students flexibly by need and do some groupwork on their goals.

And there you have it!  I'm in the middle of a move, but I'm hopeful that by August I'll be all settled in and ready to really plan for next year!